Visit to National Civil Rights Museum a “powerful” experience for ISU (and all of us)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Sure, a warm weather destination would have been nice.

One more win — and one less picked-up flag (ahem) — probably could have steered Iowa State football and its myriad loyal fans toward a sun-kissed one, too.

But Memphis sits at an historic crossroads and I’m damn happy to be here for a variety of reasons.

It’s a city built high along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River and forged by centuries of memories — some truly beautiful, some unspeakably ugly.

It’s a critical junction point for the Civil Rights Movement and the site of the April 4, 1968 assassination of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s where the roots of country and blues-based music merged, entangled, and branched off into unexpected, but not entirely different directions.

It’s the home of Sun Records, made famous primarily by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, among others.

It’s a seminal site for the soul scene of the mid to late 1960s, where artists such as Booker T. and the MGs (Stax Record’s “house” band) and Isaac Hayes helped create a soundtrack for the movement for racial equality and justice.

Which brings us to yesterday afternoon.

I’m a lifelong student of history and when I saw that the Cyclones planned to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in advance of their Dec. 30 Liberty Bowl matchup with the Memphis Tigers, I knew I wanted to couple my visit with that of the team’s.

As I passed through the dozens of interactive and impactful exhibits, I winced and I nodded. I smiled and I scowled. I saw oppressors cloaked by hoods. I saw heroes bound together by the defiant, but inclusive phrase, turned rallying cry and revolutionary song: “We Shall Overcome.”

I saw brave Freedom Riders and the cowardice of Bull Connor. I saw attack dogs and fire hoses; buses fueled by courage and buses scarred by the fanned flames of hate. I saw the terrorism of “Bombingham” and the fervent, unwavering hope for a better America embodied by Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech.

In short, I strongly suggest that visiting this incredible museum lands squarely on your pre-bowl to-do list,  as it did for the Cyclones. Here are some of their post-visit thoughts, in the form of Tweets:

Beyond the Twitter world, ISU running back Mike Warren was gracious enough to speak with the media as the team finished up its visit.

His thoughts?

“It just really puts into perspective all the things that have happened in history,” Warren said. “It really hit home for me, just reading all the stuff and reading about all the things that happened. There’s a lot of emotion behind it for me, of course, because it could have been some of my ancestors, or people part of my family that went through that.”

The tour of the main building ends by veering into the room situated next to Dr. King’s room 306 that awful April day nearly 51 years ago. Vistors can peer inside and see what the room looked like then. They also can gaze out a window, to the balcony and beyond, where a wreath is displayed in remembrance of the slain civil rights icon.

“Just at a loss for words,” Warren said. “Just going through it and putting it in perspective that, you know, we’re standing where he got shot. … I just don’t know how to put it into words.”

Few can, but ISU coach Matt Campbell tried to sum up the overall experience.

“Powerful,” he said quietly as he exited the building.

In a word, I couldn’t put it any better, coach.


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.

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